All the Right Toppings

Erick Opsahl reveals how evolving food laws and consumer tastes shape the brands at Wells Enterprises

Within fifty feet of Erick Opsahl’s office is a freezer full of ice cream products. The sweet tooth temptation is not an unexpected perk of his job within the cubic building in Le Mars, Iowa, a small town dubbed the ice cream capital of the world. The designation derives from the area’s chief employer, the largest family-owned and managed ice cream manufacturer in the United States.

Wells Enterprises employs about 3,000 people in the town of roughly 10,000 residents, one of whom is Opsahl, the billion-dollar company’s senior vice president of legal affairs, general counsel, and corporate secretary.

Prior to joining Wells in 2012, Opsahl worked for large, publicly traded companies, including Brunswick, Kimberly-Clark, and Pactiv. But when a recruiter introduced him to CEO Mike Wells, the third-generation descendant to lead the family-run business, he knew he wanted to join the Wells team.

“Honestly, the uniqueness of being a truly family-owned company for 104 years in this small community intrigued me,” Opsahl says. “It seemed like a great opportunity to be a part of that heritage.”

Headquartered in the northwest corner of Iowa, Wells concocts numerous frozen treats for licensed brands such as Weight Watchers, in addition to nearly 1,000 dessert products sold under its own trademarks. This includes Wells’ most-well known brand, Blue Bunny. To this day, more ice cream is produced in its Le Mars plants than in any other city around the world. For a tangible idea of how that appears, about 350 Bomb Pops are produced on the manufacturing line each minute. With that large scale comes a wide purview led by the legal team maintaining compliance between each brand iteration and the ever-changing food laws across the nation.

Over his five years at Wells, Opsahl’s team has grown from four direct reports to a team of more than fifty, as he’s taken on administrative management functions such as facility maintenance and corporate security, in addition to his legal role. That expansion into the business side at Wells is a perfect fit for Opsahl. He earned his juris doctor degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, and he also earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and an MBA from Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management.

That dual insight benefits what Opsahl calls the “push-and-pull” relationship between legal and the business goals within the food space.

“Our legal perspective helps Wells’ marketing folks anticipate and craft their message to consumers in a way that’s on trend, but is also consistent with the increasing pace of food and labeling regulations,” Opsahl explains. “The more that our legal team understands the core business strategies and where they want to go in the future, the more effective we can be as in-house counsel.”

The food industry has experienced numerous changes over the last decade in particular, according to Opsahl. For example, he cites that twenty-two class action lawsuits were filed in federal court in 2008. That number jumped to 425 active lawsuits in 2016 within the food segment. He explains that extensive work has been done in the advertising realm regarding labeling claims. For example, that means when a company publicly states a product is all-natural, then there may be a challenge as to whether that’s truly the case.

Similarly, last year the US Food and Drug Administration enacted the new Nutrition Facts label requirement for packaged foods. The updates reflect new scientific findings available to better inform and protect consumers.

Wells is able to adapt to these changes and avoid major lawsuits due to the preventative work conducted by a proactive legal culture, Opsahl explains. He notes that the rights of consumers continue to expand, and rightfully so. “People want to know their food is safe, and that has impacted the food industry over the years, especially in response to product food-borne illnesses,” Opsahl says, citing the publicity surrounding contaminated peanut butter about ten years ago.

Consequently, in 2011, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), one of the largest overhauls of food safety laws in more than seventy years. The act went into effect last year, implementing fundamental changes to food production throughout the United States.

“The more our legal team understands the core business strategies and where they want to go in the future, the more effective we can be as in-house counsel.”

Opsahl helps uphold the additional training, product information, and traceability measures at Wells Enterprises.

“Manufacturers like us are required to have better record keeping of their food safety and more examination of the supply chain to ensure where the food comes from is safe,” he says. “It also takes corporate liability to a new level by holding food executives accountable.”

Wells’ CEO and the board have embraced FSMA throughout the company, Opsahl concludes. But while such legal changes impact the business side, the opposite also holds true. Tracking trends in consumer preferences affects the business trajectory while also directing the type of mergers and acquisitions that his legal team handles to keep Wells relevant. “Younger generations of consumers, like millennials, often look for products that differ from heritage brands,” Opsahl says. “So we’re seeing the growth in organic foods, better-for-you products, and clean labels.”

As a result, Wells not only adapts its existing brands, but also focuses its legal team to acquire strategic start-ups matching those consumer preferences in terms of frozen desserts. Within the last year, Wells established a joint venture with a New York City company that makes gourmet sorbets called Sorbabes.

“Their brand angle is artisanal, non-GMO-type products,” Opsahl says. “It’s an example of Wells acknowledging that our existing brands aren’t always on-trend with certain customer segments and then partnering with a company that has that authenticity in what they produce.”

The consolidation and desire of food companies to find fresh ideas through newer brands mirrors the beer industry’s movement toward craft beers within the past decade, according to Opsahl. Wells continually seeks balance between maintaining the appeal of a heritage identity and catering to more temporal consumer demands. Consider how Wells went through an extensive brand relaunch of its flagship brand in 2016. Blue Bunny launched a new logo, creative packaging, enhanced product flavors, and new television advertisements.

Opsahl and the leadership team at Wells consider the adaptation of the eighty-year-old brand a great success. “It starts with marketing and sales, but the legal team is very much a part of that seamless coordination to help evolve a well-known brand,” Opsahl says. “We’ve created products known for high quality and safety while also answering what our consumers are looking for in a dessert.”

As for the legal leader himself, Opsahl says that his personal favorite flavor is cookie dough, and that he particularly enjoys Blue Bunny’s Bunny Tracks ice cream. “They told me when I started that I’d get tired of it after a few years, but I can still eat it morning, noon, and night,” he says laughing. “I love our products, so I’m a happy guy at this ice cream company.”